Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

Ralph Reed’s Forthcoming Book Claims That Evangelicals Have a “Moral Obligation” to Support Trump

Believe Me 3d

Politico is reporting that court evangelical Ralph Reed, one of the early architects of the Christian Right, has written a book calling for evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump.  Regnery Publishing, known for their conservative books, will release the book in April 2020.

As some of you know, I also wrote a book about evangelicals and Donald Trump. It is titled Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpEerdmans Publishing will release the paperback in January 2020, three months before Reed’s For God and Country hits the shelves.  In this book I make the case that American evangelicals DO NOT have a moral obligation to vote for Donald Trump.

Here is a taste of Gabby Orr’s piece at Politico:

One of Donald Trump’s most prominent Christian supporters will argue in a book due out before the 2020 general election that American evangelicals “have a moral obligation to enthusiastically back” the president.

The book’s author, Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, became a loyal foot soldier for Trump immediately after he nabbed the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 — commanding hordes of white evangelical voters from his perch on the candidate’s religious advisory board to trust that the New York businessman would grow the economy, defend religious freedom and dismantle federal protections for abortion, if elected.

According to the book’s description, obtained by POLITICO, the original title for the book was “Render to God and Trump,” a reference to the well-known biblical verse, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” The message from Jesus in Matthew 22, has been used in contemporary politics to justify obedience to government — or in the case of Reed’s book, to Trump.

Regnery Publishing confirmed the book’s existence but said the title is “For God and Country: The Christian case for Trump.” The publisher declined to comment on the reason for the title change.

In his book, Reed will “persuasively” argue evangelicals have a duty to defend the incumbent Republican leader against “the stridently anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and pro-abortion agenda of the progressive left,” according to the description.

He will also rebut claims by religious and nonreligious critics that white evangelical Protestants “revealed themselves to be political prostitutes and hypocrites” by overwhelmingly backing Trump, a twice-divorced, admitted philanderer, in 2016.

“Critics charge that evangelical Trump supporters … have so thoroughly compromised their witness that they are now disqualified from speaking out on moral issues in the future,” the description reads.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Do I Keep Repeating Myself?

Trump court evangelicals

Some might say I am obsessed with Trump and the evangelicals who support him.  Maybe that’s true.  But I keep writing and posting about Trump and the court evangelicals for a couple of reasons:

  1. I have written a book on the subject and I hope short-form writing might direct people toward my longer thoughts on the matter of Donald Trump and his evangelical supporters.  By the way, the book is titled Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpThe hardback is available at most booksellers and the paperback, with a new epilogue, will be released by Eerdmans in January 2020.
  2. Fear, power, and nostalgia continue to define evangelical political engagement and I believe that such an approach is not Christian. If people stop bringing thus up, Trump’s behavior and the court evangelical defense of him might become normalized.

If you are tired of it all, feel free to change the channel.  I will not be offended.

The Third Great Evangelical Awakening is Here and Donald Trump is Leading It

Believe Me 3dDonald Trump claims that his impeachment is “electrifying” the evangelical churches.  He talks as if he is somehow responsible for a religious revival that is apparently influencing “hundreds of thousands” of people.  Hallelujah!  It is the Third Great Awakening!

Watch:

Here is a question to consider:  Is Trump right?  Are people joining churches because they want to rally around the president during this impeachment crisis?  If so, what does this say about American evangelicalism?

Why do so many evangelicals support Trump?  I tried to answer this question in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  It will appear in paperback in January 2020, just in time for primary season.  In the meantime, check out the book’s recently updated website.

I’m open for some more book talks or lectures in the wake of the paperback release.  Let me know if you are interested in setting something up for Winter, Spring or Summer 2020.

Yes, I am Doubling Down on the Fear Thesis

Believe Me 3dMy friend John Wilson, the evangelical bibliophile who once manned the editor’s desk of Books & Culture, has never quite embraced my argument about fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I will let him explain why he finds it so distasteful by citing a passage from his review of my book in The Hedgehog Review:

As a mea culpa of sorts, Fea has written three chapters—“The Evangelical Politics of Fear,” “The Playbook,” and “A Short History of Evangelical Fear”—that together make up more than half of his book (not counting the footnotes) and that precede his extended treatment of the court evangelicals. “Evangelical Fear”: That’s the answer! Oh, dear. It’s not just dismaying to me, it’s shocking (to borrow a word from Fea himself) to see such an excellent historian relying on the tired trope of “evangelical fear” to reduce the story of a many-sided movement and its infinitely various membership over several centuries to a simple morality play. “It is possible,” Fea says, “to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear.” Possible, yes, just as it’s possible to write triumphalist histories of evangelicalism (of which we’ve had all too many). But are those our only choices?

Read the rest here.

And here is my response to the review.

Earlier this evening I did a post on the Religion News Service’s interview with Franklin Graham.  Journalist Yonat Shimron asked Graham all the right questions.  I am quoted in the piece:

Sounding the alarm about a nation in peril is a tried-and-true evangelical strategy, said John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

“I’ve argued this has been a typical part of evangelical political engagement for centuries — fear mongering,” said Fea. “You can’t make an argument to support what the president did on his phone call with the Ukrainian president. So what do you do? You play the traditional game of instilling fear in the electorate so they will see us falling off the cliff as a nation and this apocalyptic language will convince them they have to vote for Trump again in 2020.”

When I tweeted the article, John Wilson posted a sarcastic tweet in response:

I responded to much of Wilson’s argument in this tweet in my aforementioned (and linked) post to his review in The Hedgehog Review, but let me write a few more words here.

Am I afraid of the legacy that Donald Trump and the court evangelicals will leave for the nation and the church?  Yes.  I am very afraid.  But I also realize that I cannot dwell in this fear and, through the spiritual disciplines of my faith, respond to such fears with hope.  In other words, I need to trust God more.  As the writer Marilynne Robinson once said, “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”

But I should also add that any fear I might have about Trump, the court evangelical agenda, and their legacy is based on truth and facts.  This is different from the fear I see among many of Trump’s evangelical supporters.

Most evangelical fear is built upon endless lies. These include the false idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed, the straw man that all Democrats are socialists, Marxists, and atheists trying to undermine American liberty, the idea that impeachment will lead to a civil war, the belief that immigrants will kill us if they get too close, or the conviction that abortion will end if we just overturn Roe v. Wade.   The overwhelming majority of conservative evangelical Christians who I know and talk to on a regular basis believe one or more of these false claims.  They get their talking points from Fox News and then read the Bible to make it fit with these talking points.  They believe that there is a deep state–an illuminati working to undermine God’s anointed president.  They are so afraid of Hillary Clinton that they think she should be locked-up.  They believe that demonic forces are unraveling America.  And if anyone offers an alternative view to these beliefs they will be castigated as a purveyor of “fake news.”  Again, I have spoken at length to evangelical family members, readers of this blog, and members of my church who believe one or more of these things.  I get their nasty e-mails, social media messages, and multi-part voice messages.

John Wilson–you need to get out more. The fearful people I am writing about here do not read back issues of Books & Culture or attend the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.  They do not talk theology in the coffee shops of Wheaton, Illinois.  There is an entire world of evangelical Christians out there who you have not yet met. They are very afraid.  They seek comfort in strongmen of both the political and religious variety.  Donald Trump and the court evangelicals are exploiting their fears for political gain.

Will Trump-Supporting Evangelicals Learn Anything from the Graham-Nixon Relationship?

Graham and Nixon

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,  I wrote:

[Billy] Graham’s relationship with Richard Nixon brought him closer to the world of presidential politics than he had ever been before.  The two stayed in close contact during the years following Nixon’s loss to Kennedy in the election of 1960 and the evangelist continued to speak positively about the politician in public venues.  In a 1964 interview in McCall’s magazine, Graham expressed his bafflement that he often heard people say  “I just don’t like Nixon.”  According to Graham, the former vice president was “one of the warmest and most likeable men I have ever known.”  Nixon claimed that Graham encouraged him  him to run for president again in 1968, and Graham, in turn, suggested that Nixon’s second change at the nation’s highest political office was part of God’s providential plan.  During Nixon’s years in the White House (1969-1974) , Graham made regular visits to the president, served as an unofficial surrogage (without formally endorsing him), advised Nixon on policy decision, and publicly thanked God for his presidency.  [Historian Steven] Miller goes as far to suggest that there were times when “Graham’s [religious] services or appearances seemed to double as Nixon rallies.”  Nixon used Graham to win evangelical votes, especially in the South. where Nixon needed the votes of white southern Christians–his so-called “Southern strategy”–and Graham believed that Nixon was a moral statesman, God’s man to lead a Christian nation.

But Graham would quickly learn that Richard Nixon was one man in Graham’s presence and quite another when operating in the cutthroat world of presidential politics.  During the Watergate scandal, Graham stood by the president.  During the 1972 election campaign, he chided Nixon’s opponent, South Dakota senator George McGovern, for saying that the Nixon administration was up to something sinister.  In one letter to President Nixon, Graham quoted Psalm 35:11-12, where the psalmist writes: “They accuse me of things I have never heard about.  I do them good, but they return me harm.”  [Historian Grant] Wacker says that Graham “continued to defend Nixon long after most Americans smelled a rate.”  In December 1973 , the evangelist told Nixon that he had “complete confidence” in his “personal integrity.”  When transcripts of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations (which included Nixon’s strongly anti-Semitic language) proved that the president was ultimately responsible for the Watergate break-in, Graham seemed more concerned about Nixon’s profanity on the tapes than the fact that the president was using his power to cover up his crimes.  When Graham read excerpts of the tapes in The New York Times, he claimed to feel “physically sick.”  Years later, Graham admitted that his relationship with the disgraced former president had “muffled those inner monitors that had warned me for years to stay out of partisan politics” and, as Wacker notes, “he urged young evangelists to avoid his mistake.”

There are a lot of similarities between Graham’s relationship with Nixon and the court evangelicals‘ relationship with Donald Trump.  Have the court evangelicals learned anything from Billy Graham?  Over at The Washington Post, Anja Maria-Bassimir and Elesha Coffman offer a revealing look into the way evangelical magazines responded to Graham’s relationship with Nixon during the Watergate scandal.  Here is a taste:

While Graham enjoyed private chats in the Nixon White House and urged his fellow citizens to rally around the flag at Honor America Day, another prominent evangelical, then-Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), warned that a bad graft between religion and politics was turning gangrenous. “We would always rather hide our wounds than heal them,” he said at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in Chicago in May 1973. “It is always more comfortable to believe in the symbols of righteousness than to acknowledge the reality of evil. This is especially true in our national political life. And we have become adroit at manipulating religious impulses in our land to sanctify this political life.”

People in power, such as Hatfield, had to work even harder to resist such craven impulses. He noted: “When we are given a position of leadership, it becomes almost second nature to avoid admitting that we may be wrong. Confession becomes equated with weakness. The urge toward self-vindication becomes enormous, almost overpowering. A politician faces this temptation in a very special way, for somehow it has become a political maxim never to admit that one is wrong. Now, that may be wise politics. But it’s terrible Christianity.” These sentiments earned Hatfield a place on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” and a concerned letter from Graham, according to the book “Lonely Walk.”

As revelations about the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup accumulated in 1973 and 1974, many evangelicals vacillated between Hatfield’s warnings and Graham’s reassurances. At first, only Hatfield’s allies in the small but vocal evangelical left sounded the alarm. Hatfield’s speech echoed the rhetoric of his friend Jim Wallis, who regularly hit these ominous notes in his radical magazine, the Post-American (later renamed Sojourners). Then, the far-from-radical magazine Eternity chimed in, as columnist Joseph Bayly wrote: “Whether we like it or not, a major problem we face as evangelical Christians today is the identification in the popular mind of the religious position we represent with the Nixon administration and its actions. We are ‘middle America,’ the group sector that gave President Nixon his ‘mandate.’ We are the war party, the white backlash (if not racist) party, the Watergate scandal party.”

Finally, the more staid Christianity Today — the magazine founded by Billy Graham — came around. It had printed Hatfield’s speech in June 1973, but also Graham’s “mistakes and blunders” comments several months later. Appearing reluctant, in June 1974, an editorial argued for Nixon’s impeachment. Authors acknowledged that “evangelicals can point to some in their ranks whose private or public conduct is disgraceful, perhaps even worse than that displayed by the Watergate participants.” Ten years later, Graham told the magazine: “I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God.” He said he had learned his lesson. And near the end of his life, he said: “I also would have steered clear of politics.”

Read the entire piece here.

Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project

1619

We introduced readers to The New York Times 1619 Project in this post.  It now looks like there are some people who do not like the newspaper’s attempt to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.  Here are a few examples:

I am not surprised by any of this.  I knew there would be push-back when I read that The New York Times was framing the 1619 Project as an attempt to “frame the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and, placing the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

I wonder if any of the aforementioned tweeters have read the essays in the 1619 Project.  Most of them probably stopped after they read the words “frame” and “true founding.”

Historians, of course, have been bringing slavery to the center of the American story for a long time–more than half a century.  The 1619 Project reflects this scholarship and takes it to its logical conclusion.

Frankly, the 1619 project is excellent.  Americans need to wrestle with the legacy of slavery.  I hope teachers will use it in their classrooms.

Newt Gingrich is completely wrong when he says that “if you are an African American slavery is at the center of what YOU see as the American experience, but for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on.” Gingrich is an embarrassment.  (I am especially tough on him because he has a Ph.D in history).

So what were some of those “other things going on?”

Edmund Morgan, of course, showed us that American freedom has always been intricately linked to American slavery.  Pennsylvania farmers in the so-called “best poor man’s country in the world,” pursued their “American” dream by supplying grain to feed West Indian slaves in the British sugar colonies.  As historians Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and others have taught us, slavery fueled capitalism and American economic growth.  Even those living in the free-soil north benefited from the wealth generated by slave labor.  As Robert Parkinson argues in his recent book, the racial fears of American patriots had something to do with the way they understood the Revolution.  In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I trace the history of race and the legacy of slavery in shaping an evangelical approach to political life.  And we could go on.

But there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people, and many others.  We can’t forget, for example, that Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith, provided the impetus for the abolition of slavery.

History is messy and complex.  We should make every effort to remember our past.  And now is the time to remember the significance of 1619 and the central role that slavery and racism has played in the making of America.

Nice Work Ted Cruz…Kinda

As readers of this blog now, I am not a big Ted Cruz fan.  I criticized him heavily during the 2016 campaign and also covered him in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

But I am glad to see this:

Thanks, Ted Cruz!  Here is a Washington Post piece.

ADDENDUM:  These days I am just happy when a leading Republican calls out racism and white supremacy.  But as Al Mackey notes in the comments, let’s not pretend that Cruz’s references to Forrest as a delegate to the 1868 Democratic convention is not sending a subtle message rooted in the idea, popular among the Right today, that the Democrats continue to be the party of racism.  Kevin Kruse and others have debunked this view of history for its failure to recognize change over time.

*The Guardian* and *Salon* Cover *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dHere is Tom McCarthy at The Guardian:

Meanwhile, Trump has addressed a central concern for white evangelicals that they are losing influence as a group and that the sun is setting on the United States they dream of – a nation that is white and Christian in its majority and in its essence.

“They’ll look away from the moral indiscretion in order to get their political agenda in place… they want to reclaim, renew, restore what they believe was a Christian culture, a Christian America that has been lost,” said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Trump’s perceived delivery on that dream overwhelms qualms that many religious voters might have about sexual assault allegations against Trump, or about his multiple marriages or worship of mammon, Fea said.

“They don’t see this at all as hypocrisy,” Fea said. “They believe that Trump is appointed by God for a moment such as this. They believe that God uses corrupt people – there are examples in the Bible of this, so they’ll call upon these verses.

“They truly believe that ‘God works in mysterious ways. He uses even someone like Donald Trump to accomplish His will.’”

Read the entire piece here.

And here is Paul Rosenberg at Salon:

Clarkson’s reporting was his latest on Project Blitz — a Christian right stealth state legislative campaign first exposed by him early last year, and reported here at Salon. As I wrote then, its guiding vision is heavily influenced by pseudo-historian David Barton, who “has been discredited by every American historian I know,” according to evangelical historian John Fea. (See Fea’s latest on Barton here.) The myth of America’s founding as a Christian nation, and our supposed need to restore what’s been lost, are its guiding lights, with three proposed tiers of legislation.

Also this:

There are different schools of dominionism, and as Julie Ingersoll explained in “Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction” (Salon interview here), their ideas have had enormous influence on the religious right, even among many Christians who overtly disavow them. Barton and many others involved with Project Blitz subscribe to what is called “Seven Mountains” dominionism, devoted to infiltrating and taking over the “seven mountains of culture”: government, education, media, arts and entertainment, religion, family and business. Coming out of the “New Apostolic Reformation,” styling themselves as “apostles” and “prophets,” those folks have an exalted opinion of themselves. Secretive, extremist means to a “holy” end often find favor with them. 

Clarkson points to the case of state legislation in Minnesota, which he sees as “a harbinger of a more profoundly theocratic politics on the horizon.” Project Blitz works through a network of state-level legislative prayer caucuses, and in Minnesota, the state director, Rev. Dale Witherington, also runs an explicit Seven Mountains organization, RestoreMN, devoted to the “restoration of Biblical values in our nation” and “Biblical citizenship.” 

This year provided a taste of what he has in mind. The story begins with an attempt to slash the budget of the Minnesota Historical Society by $4 million (possibly resulting in a 25% staff cuts) for failing to conform to Christian nationalist ideology. 

When the cuts were first proposed by State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, she refused to explain why, beyond saying it was because of an unspecified “controversy.” State Sen. John Marty, a Twin Cities Democrat, eventually got the scoop from another Republican member, who explained that it had to do with “what he called ‘revisionist history’ at the 200-year-old Historic Fort Snelling.

This “revisionist history” involved the fort expanding its educational mission to include the Dakota name for the area, Bdote, and a 10,000-year history that included “Native peoples, trade, soldiers and veterans, enslaved people, immigrants, and the changing landscape.” That history happens to be true. But as Marty told me, religious conservatives “wanted the history that they were taught 4th grade, and think that that’s all there is to it. Anything else is ‘revisionist history.’” 

Those proposed cuts restored by Democrats, who control the state House and the governor’s office. But the story doesn’t end there. In the May issue of Americans United’s Church and State magazine, historian Steven Greene blew the whistle on what’s probably the real story — a behind-the-scenes threat from the Minnesota Prayer Caucus, to slash the Historical Society funding in retaliation for scheduling two lectures based on his 2015 book, “Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding.

Greene’s book was published by Oxford University Press, arguably the world’s leading academic publisher, and was praised by evangelical historian John Fea, himself the author of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.” Fea called it “the most thorough critique of Christian nationalism available today,” and said, “Anyone interested in this subject must read this book.” (Fea and Greene both took part in a 2015 CNN forum on the subject here.) 

But the Minnesota Prayer Caucus was not impressed, and accused the Historical Society of “promoting a narrative about our nation’s history and founding that is patently false.” (Mind you, its members had not seen the book, let alone read it.) After an exchange of letters, the caucus eventually made a veiled threat, requesting “that our side of the story be presented with your support and promotion through the Minnesota Historical Society,” and saying that it should be scheduled and promoted by May 1 of this year, “when committees begin to meet to review appropriations to various organizations and groups.”

Read the entire piece here.

*The Economist* Covers the Growing Rift in the Evangelical Camp

Believe Me 3dEarlier this week I had a great phone conversation with The Economist writer Bruce Clark about my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of how how Clark wrote it up:

…Admittedly, evangelicals have never been a monolith. As behoves people who take their spiritual destiny seriously, they argue perpetually about many things: for example over whether the fate of a human soul is predetermined, or how exactly a believer can be redeemed from the “total depravity” which is, in the view of John Calvin (1509-1564), the natural state of humanity. Debates which raged between Europe’s 16th-century reformers are rumbling on in America’s influential seminaries.

But according to a new book, “Believe Me”, by John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, all these theological disagreements are being transcended by a more salient issue: whether or not to support Mr Trump wholeheartedly and therefore overlook his character flaws. These days, by far the most important distinction is between what Mr Fea calls “court evangelicals”, who stridently support the president and are rewarded with access to him, and every other kind of evangelical. As a new coalition lines up to fight next year’s election, some of the battle formations which formed in the 2016 contest are coming back into view, with even sharper spears.

Among those who inhabit the court, Mr Fea discerns three main groups: first, a section of the mainstream religious right whose origins go back to the 1980s; second, a cohort of independent “charismatics” who claim the gifts of the Pentecostal tradition (visions, miracles and direct revelations from God) but do not belong to any established Pentecostal group; and third, advocates of the “prosperity gospel” who resemble the second category but put emphasis on the material rewards which following their particular version of Christianity will bring. What defines all these “courtiers” is an insistence that loyalty to Mr Trump must be unconditional. In their world, the president is presented not just as the least-worst political option whose merits outweigh his flaws, but as a man assigned by God to restore America to its divinely set course, and therefore almost above human criticism.

To get round the problems posed by Mr Trump’s ruthless business career, messy personal life and scatological language, they use several arguments, of which one is a comparison with Persia’s King Cyrus, who liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to Israel. From the Jewish or Christian point of view, Cyrus was a pagan, not a worshipper of the one God, but he was still an instrument of God’s purpose. Likewise Mr Trump can be regarded as a divinely ordained ruler, regardless of any personal flaws. Indeed, as Mr Fea notes, the more strongly people believe in a divine hand in history, the more open they are to the idea that God can choose anybody at all to serve his inscrutable purpose.

Read the rest here.

David French Elaborates on Evangelical Fear

 

Believe Me 3dWe covered this last week after several folks e-mailed me to ask if I sent David French a copy of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Read that post here.

David French and Jon Meacham were on “Morning Joe” this morning:

In this interview, French does say that this fear has been present before 2016.  (I challenged him to think historically in the post to which I linked above).

Both evangelical “fear” and the evangelical pursuit of “power” are mentioned in this interview.  Of course these are the main themes of Believe Me.

David French and the Fear Factor

Meme-believeme 2Today I received multiple e-mails, tweets, and messages asking me if I know David French or if I have given him a copy of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  His recent piece in Time, “Evangelicals Are Supporting Trump Out of Fear, Not Faith,” sounds quite familiar.

Here is a taste:

White evangelicals are largely Republican, and they’re generally going to vote for Republicans. And proximity to power has always had its attractions for religious charlatans of all stripes. But I’d suggest the real reason for the breadth and depth of evangelical support is deeper and–perversely–even more destructive to its religious witness.

That reason is fear.

Talk to engaged evangelicals, and fear is all too often a dominant theme of their political life. The church is under siege from a hostile culture. Religious institutions are under legal attack from progressives. The left wants nuns to facilitate access to abortifacients and contraceptives, it wants Christian adoption agencies to compromise their conscience or close, and it even casts into doubt the tax exemptions of religious education institutions if they adhere to traditional Christian sexual ethics.

These issues are legally important, and there are reasons for evangelicals to be concerned. But there is no reason for evangelicals to abandon long-held principles to behave like any other political-interest group.

Instead, the evangelical church is called to be a source of light in a darkening world. It is not given the luxury of fear-based decisionmaking. Indeed, of all the groups in American life who believe they have the least to fear from American politics, Christians should top the list. The faithful should reject fear.

Read the entire piece here.

And no, I have never met French, nor, as far as I know, did Eerdmans Publishing send him a copy of Believe Me.

French also writes:

But in 2016, something snapped. I saw Christian men and women whom I’ve known and respected for years respond with raw fear at the very idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency. They believed she was going to place the church in mortal danger. The Christian writer Eric Metaxas wrote that if Hillary won, America’s chance to have a “Supreme Court that values the Constitution” will be “gone.” “Not for four years, not for eight,” he said, “but forever.”

This is true, and I write about it in Believe Me, but I go one step further by showing that 2016 was not the first time that white evangelicals have played the fear card.  In fact, it is a longstanding (three centuries!) feature of evangelical political engagement.

Some Comments on Peter Leithart’s *First Things* Review of *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dFirst Things assigned Peter Leithart, the president of an organization called Theopolis Institute, to review my Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  The title of his review is  “Trump Among the Evangelicals.”

Here is the relevant part of the review:

All in all, Fea tells a familiar story, and his main contribution is to update some threads of the history of the Christian Right. Fea is right on some key points. He’s right to be alarmed by the near-messianic enthusiasm of some evangelicals for Trump. He’s right to chide the hypocrisy of excusing Trump for sins that were impeachable offenses when committed by Bill Clinton. He’s right about the seductions of power, and he can quote former Christian Right leaders like Cal Thomas in support. He’s right about the nostalgia, and his answer to the question, “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” is sensibly ambivalent: It’s “difficult to answer with a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Fea’s advocacy of a politics of hope, humility, and history can hardly be gainsaid.

But Believe Me is a political intervention under the cover of history. As such, it suffers from two debilitating defects.

Fea is a professor at Messiah College—an evangelical institution. He is talking about his own tribe, but he shows little sympathy for his subjects. He observes, for instance, that evangelicals see the years between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Reagan presidency as “a perfect storm capable of wiping out the Christian ideals that built their great nation.” I imagine he’d say that it’s outside his bailiwick as a historian to judge whether evangelical fears are well-grounded, but his framework speaks for itself. Fea places these trends under the rubric of “evangelical fear,” which shades over into “evangelical paranoia.” But it’s worth asking, might evangelical qualms be justified?

Fea also displays a stunning lack of curiosity, which narrows his tale to a few evangelical stars. Millions of evangelicals who will never be court evangelicals voted for Trump. Who are they? What motivated them? Are they also driven by fear, lust for power, and nostalgia? Or are they perhaps motivated by more mundane worries—like how they’re going to make rent or pay for groceries or rebuild their crumbling neighborhoods? Fea never asks.

It wouldn’t have been hard to find some answers. Timothy Carney, author of Alienated America, compiles widely-reported evidence that Trump’s strongest evangelical support came from those who don’t attend church regularly. They hold evangelical beliefs without evangelical belonging. Americans, Carney argues, suffer from a deficit of social capital, which in America is typically mediated through local churches. In healthy communities, like the Dutch Reformed towns of Iowa and Michigan or the tightly networked Mormonism in Utah, Americans are often conservative but anti-Trump. Fea doesn’t consider the possibility that a vote for Trump was a cry of desperation from the unchurched, unemployed, alienated American heartland. As a result, Believe Me misses some of the most significant lessons of the ongoing saga of Trump among the evangelicals.

A few comments:

  • My book has been out for a year, but I am grateful to see that high-caliber magazines like First Things still find it worthy of a review.  I am a former subscriber to First Things and I have also written a few things for the website.
  • I am not very familiar with Leithart’s work, but I do know that he is a big name among the circle of conservative Christians who read First Things.  I am happy to see that he finds much to commend in the book.
  • Leithart says that my “main contribution” in Believe Me is “to update some threads of the history of the Christian Right.”  Not really.  Most of my story of the Christian Right draws from other scholars.  There is actually very little new here beyond my synthesis of  some outstanding scholarship by folks like Randall Balmer, Kevin Kruse, Daniel K. Williams, and Mark Noll.  And my long look into the history of fear is rooted in the best academic history available.
  • Leithart calls my book “a political intervention under the cover of history.”   He writes this as if it is a bad thing.   I actually prefer to call Believe Me a historically-inflected piece of political commentary.  Whatever the case, I never claimed that this was a traditional history book.
  • Leithart writes: “I imagine he’d say that it’s outside his bailiwick as a historian to judge whether evangelical fears are well-grounded, but his framework speaks for itself.”  Actually, I make the case in multiple places in the book that evangelical fears ARE NOT well-grounded.  My direct and unambiguous moral intervention into the narrative is why I do not consider Believe Me a work of traditional history.  I make a case for this approach in the book.
  • Leithart suggests that I display a “stunning lack of curiosity” because I don’t embrace the popular theory that the evangelical voters who pulled the level for Trump do not attend church.  He says that I should have consulted Timothy Carney’s book Alienated America on this front.  Actually, I don’t think my unwillingness to buy into this theory comes from a lack of curiosity.   I was quite curious about it, but in the end I rejected it (and I make this point in the book).  Since then, a Pew study has shown that Trump’s support actually comes from evangelical who DO attend church.  (And even if I did agree with Carney’s findings, his book did not appear until February 2019, eight months after Believe Me was published.  Leithart is apparently not aware of this fact).

I usually don’t comment on reviews of my books, but I am left wondering if Leithart even read it.  I do not expect this kind of sloppiness from First Things.

Evangelical Trump Fans: Don’t Forget to Buy Your King Cyrus-Donald Trump Prayer Coin

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In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrote a several pages on the so-called INC (Independent Network Charismatics) prophets.  Lance Wallnau is one of these “prophets.”  Here is what I wrote about him:

Early in the 2016 campaign, Lance Wallnau received a similar word: “Donald Trump is a wrecking ball to the spirit of political correctness.”  When Wallnau’s prophecy caught the attention of Trump’s evangelical supporters, he was invited to attend a meeting with the candidate and other evangelical leaders in Trump Tower.  As Wallnau listened to Trump talk about his desire to give evangelicals a more prominent voice in government, he sensed that God was giving him an “assignment”–a “calling related to this guy.”  One day, while he was reading his Facebook page, Wallnau saw a meme predicting that Trump would be the “45 president of the United States.”  God told Wallnau to pick up his Bible and turn to Isaiah 45.  On reading the passage, Wallnau realized that, not only would Trump be a “wrecking ball” to political correctness, but he would be elected president of the United States in the spirit of the ancient Persian king Cyrus.  In the Old Testament, Cyrus  was the secular political leader whom God used to send the exiled kingdom of Judah back to the Promised Land so that they could rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its holy Temple.  Wallnau was shocked by this discovery.  “God was messing with my head,” he told Steven Strang, the editor of Charisma, a magazine that covers INC and other Pentecostal and charismatic movements….From this point forward, Wallnau would become an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump.

Recently Wallnau showed-up on the Jim Bakker television program to hawk his Cyrus-Trump prayer coins.  According to this piece at Esquire magazine, Wallnau said that the coin is the “point of contact” between God and people praying for Trump’s success.  And guess what? This coin can be yours for only $45.00.  Here is Jack Holmes at Esquire:

This truly is the Golden Age of Grifting, and the nation’s Evangelical leaders have not passed up the opportunity. The “White Evangelical Christian” designation has always been a proxy for traditionalists who believe America’s rightful social order is the racial and gender hierarchy of approximately 1956. Donald Trump has merely laid this bare by earning their support despite being the most comically heathen man to ever step foot in the White House. What principles of Jesus Christ does the president embody? The better question might be which of the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—does he not  represent? It’s all part of the Great Unvarnishing, as the acidity of Trump’s public persona has worn on the top coat of paint many people have applied to themselves, gradually exposing what lies beneath. It’s not about Christian Values, it’s about money and power. Unless it’s about something else.

And for those Trump evangelical supporters with deeper pockets, you can get an entire “Cyrus Trump Bundle.”  It includes the Cyrus-Trump coin, a booklet by Wallnau describing his prophecy, and DVD of Wallnau conducting a religious service.  It’s yours for $450.

As I argued in Believe Me, the Independent Network Charismatics are a very large, growing, and largely overlooked segment of American evangelicalism.  Wallnau is one of their leaders.